Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for ‘What If?’ and ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’
For many audiences, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was everything they were waiting for since Spider-Man: No Way Home opened up the Marvel Cinematic Universe to other universes. While there were a number of rumors surrounding how director Sam Raimi would approach the Doctor Strange sequel – especially since Multiverse of Madness was his return to Marvel since the original Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey McGuire – There were still a number of surprises for fans. Furthermore, the film pitted Elizabeth Olsen‘s Scarlet Witch against Benedict Cumberbatch‘s caped sorcerer. But for more dedicated fans of the MCU, the multiverse was already being teased in the multiple Disney + series on streaming, from Wandavision, Lokiand more explicitly in What If? The Watcher, played by Jeffrey Wright, explores the various tangential paths across the universe, one of which is titled “What If … Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” In it, Strange loses the love of his life Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) in the car accident rather than suffering hand injuries. It is an episode that focuses on Strange and Christine’s relationship and explores the lengths that Strange will go through for love. And it’s Strange’s heart that was surprisingly missing in Multiverse of Madnessa film that continued to underserve Adams’ performance as Christine Palmer and pushed her romance with Strange to the sidelines.
In many ways, part of why Multiverse of Madness does a disservice to Strange and Christine’s relationship is that it does not focus on Strange at all. The story centers around Wanda Maximoff’s search for her children across the multiverse after the events of Wandavision. Doctor Strange becomes involved when his help is enlisted by America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) whose powers allow her to open up portals to other universes. Sure, Strange and America have a mentor-sidekick relationship that enlists some emotional connection; it’s a relationship that echoes Strange’s own relationship with Tom HollandPeter Parker in No Way Home. However, the character with the most development and, understandably so, sympathy is the Scarlet Witch. Though the film’s intention was clearly to paint Wanda as the villain, Multiverse of Madness interestingly justifies her actions through pathos. “If you knew there was a universe, where you were happy, would not you want to go there?” she poses the question to Strange. Later, she insists, “I’m not a monster, Stephen. I’m a mother. ” Wanda’s motivation is rooted in her love for her children, no matter the costs. On the other hand, Strange’s motivation is more so to stop the Scarlet Witch in order to save the multiverse. It’s a noble cause and is a given motivation for any superhero. But love is a more human motivation, one that grounds the Scarlet Witch in a more sympathetic light, even as a villain.
Of course, Stephen’s love for Christine still plays a part in the film, albeit a comparatively minor one. We spend merely the first ten minutes with the Christine Palmer of Strange’s universe, the “616 universe.” It is a poignant moment for Strange who has to watch Christine marry another man. When he has a chance to speak to her privately, they sum up what had happened to their relationship in the past few years. “I wish it had been different,” Stephen laments, “I never stopped caring about us, but I had to make sacrifices.” To protect you. ” This brief conversation provides a bookend to Strange’s relationship with her, one that was more so explored in the first half of the first Doctor Strange film. His appearances in the MCU since then – Infinity War, Endgameand No Way Home – never explored what had happened to Christine. And while he gets to spend some more time with an alternate Christine in Multiverse of Madness, in a universe where he also comes across Marvel’s Illuminati, she is merely a plot device to help Strange and Chavez get to the Book of Vishanti. Even when Christine sticks around to help keep Strange’s body stable while he takes control of a zombie Strange in 616, the scene echoes her role in the first. Doctor Strange in which she also keeps Strange’s body stable as he fights in the astroplane. The scenes keep Christine engaged in the story, but the story is in service of stopping some other antagonist rather than in service of her character and her relationship with Strange. By the time Strange declares, “I love you in every universe,” his sentiment does not completely land.
On the other hand, “What If … Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” puts Strange’s love for Christine at the center of its story. From the very first scene, Strange and Christine showcase a chemistry that never really managed to make it on theater screens. On their way to a party celebrating Strange’s success as a doctor, Christine calls his “radical hemispherectomy” remarkable, to which he responds, “I would the same about you.” This endearing back and forth is something we haven’t really gotten in the live-action films, considering they were introduced as a couple in one film and abruptly broken up in the next. In What If? however, Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams’ chemistry shine through and through, despite only providing their voices. What’s even more heartbreaking is how this version of Doctor Strange loses Christine in the car accident. Rather than spending the rest of his life studying the mystical arts to save his hands, he instead searches for a way to save Christine. It is not Strange’s arrogance or pride that leads to his search for power, which is what set him off on his journey to Kamar-Taj in Doctor Strangebut his love.
Instead, Strange’s love-fueled lust for power is kept in this series alone, which does a better job at anchoring Strange’s emotional journey in his feelings for Christine. Upon becoming the Sorcerer Supreme and discovering the Eye of Agamoto, Strange uses its time travel capabilities and returns to the very night of the accident, over and over again. He thinks of altering the events of the past in order to save her, but every moment always leads to Christine’s death. It is an absolute point, the Ancient One explains – a point in time that cannot be altered. That Christine’s death is an absolute point is significant to this Dr. Strange and every Dr. Strange in other universes – Christine is his absolute love. Determined to save Christine, Strange seeks to gain more power after learning how to harness the power of others from the library of Cagliostro. After defeating an alternate Dr. Strange who sought to defeat him, this “Strange Supreme” – corrupted by his obsession – turns into an unrecognizable monster, one that Christine rejects fully. As his universe begins to fall apart, so too does his Christine. Strange Supreme is left all alone. As the Watcher narrates, “One life, one choice, one moment can destroy the entire universe.” And for this Steven Strange, Christine was his entire universe.
Whereas Multiverse of Madness followed Wanda’s search for power in order to be with her children, What If? gave Dr. Strange a proper solo story that delved into his ultimate love for Christine Palmer. In many ways, the What If? episode was more of a direct sequel to Doctor Strange than the live-action one, which was more concerned with the Scarlet Witch’s emotional arc than Strange’s own. Furthermore, there is very little explored between Strange and Christine in Multiverse of Madness. Their romantic history is quickly brushed aside in favor of multiverse jumping and other Marvel cameos. In What If?, the entire first act of an episode is dedicated to reliving Strange and Christine’s relationship and becomes the motivating factor for Strange to become the Sorcerer Supreme. It’s a more enriching story of their romance and heartbreak than what we got in Multiverse of Madness, which merely delivered a brief flashback between Strange and Christine at a restaurant. Perhaps if Multiverse of Madness was not too busy setting up the multiverse or dealing with the ramifications of Wandavisionthen the film could have better explored what happened between Strange and Christine through a story that focused on Strange’s role as a superhero at the expense of the love of his life.